TT: There’s a Word For That

ALAN: When we first started these tangents we spent a lot of time talking about the differences between American English and British English. But languages are interesting in their own right – real languages, artificial languages and even purely imaginary languages.

Conlang, Anyone?

JANE: True!  I’ve often wished I had been introduced to more languages when I was young enough to learn them easily, but I was of a generation where second languages were usually not taught until high school, and so I’ve always struggled.

Still, I have a deeply rooted fascination with linguistics.

ALAN: Me too! Did you know there’s a word for the invention of new languages? A made-up language is a “conlang” (constructed language) and the act of making them up is called “conlanging”.

JANE: I didn’t know, so I went and looked the term up.  I think it’s important to note that “conlanging” involves more than making up a few words to create “local color” for a story or series.  To conlang, one must create not only a vocabulary, but a syntax and grammar.

The seminal example is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish.  C.S. Lewis, who was Tolkien’s friend and another language specialist, did some interesting work with language in his SF trilogy.  Were there any earlier writers of SF/F who took on this challenge?

ALAN: Yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs did it several times. The great apes who raised Tarzan had a language of their own, and so did the Martians that John Carter went adventuring with. Burroughs gives enough context to get the flavour of these languages and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that other people have expanded on his linguistic hints.

JANE: Eh…  Having read the definition of “conlang” I would argue that what Burroughs did for the Tarzan stories falls more into the “local color” category.  I read many of those novels when I was young enough to think those words might be “really” an animal language.  However, when I tried to build a vocabulary and a sense of a grammar, I realized what was in the books was hardly more than brushstrokes.

ALAN: You’re largely correct, but not completely so. The language does have some structure to it. For example, the great apes refer to themselves as Mangani. The prefix Tar means “white”, hence Tarmangani, the “white apes” that come invading the country. Also Tarzan’s own name, which translates as “white skin”. But I agree that the structure is crude and simple-minded. On the other hand, so are the great apes themselves…

JANE: I see your point, but I don’t think this is in the class of Tolkien’s Elvish.  Did Burroughs do more with the John Carter of Mars books?

ALAN: A little bit. John Carter claims that the Martian language is very simple because all subtleties and nuances are communicated telepathically. Carter himself managed to learn the language in only a week! We can derive quite a lot of word lists from the novels, and there are hints about a grammar. But it does still remain a little elusive.

JANE: I really, really like that Burroughs thought about how telepathy would shape the formation of a language – or in this case lead to it not forming as complexly.  Nice world-building!

Going back… Tolkien was particularly well-trained for making up languages, since one of his specializations was philology.  I’ve encountered many people who think this means he was a linguist but philology is different.

Philology focuses on studying language in written historical material.  It’s commonly used to establish a document’s authenticity.  Philology doesn’t only involve knowing languages, but how they developed and the historical context in which they were used.  This seems like perfect training for someone who wanted to invent his own language.

ALAN: Absolutely it does. I studied French and Latin at school and I picked up a smattering of German as part of my studies for my Chemistry degree, all of which served to convince me that languages are very complicated things. I really wouldn’t have a clue as to how to begin inventing one of my own.

JANE: Ah, we’ll need to come back that later…

What are some other examples of fully realized conlangs?   Do you have a particular favorite?

ALAN: Yes I do – Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange is written completely in a made up language called Nadsat. You could claim it’s a dialect rather than a language, but I think that’s just splitting hairs. I grew up speaking the Yorkshire dialect which, while often recognisably English, definitely had its own vocabulary and grammar. I think the point at which a dialect turns into a language is really very blurred…

JANE: Okay…  I’ll accept Nadsat as a conlang.  I haven’t read the novel, so could you tell me more about Nadsat?

ALAN: When you first start reading the novel, the language feels rather strange and incomprehensible. But Burgess constructed the language very cleverly, and context soon makes everything clear. Indeed, Nadsat  becomes so compelling that I actually found myself using it in real life for a while after I finished reading the book!

JANE: You did?  Did anyone understand you?

ALAN: Mostly no, though I did say something in Nadsat to my then girlfriend and she squealed in delight and said, “That’s almost Russian!” That was when I first realised that Burgess had included a lot of Russian-derived words and flavours into his conlang along with some purely made up out of whole cloth stuff.

Burgess himself was a linguist and polyglot, which just reinforces the point you made about the perfect training for language construction. He was a linguistic advisor on the 1981 movie Quest for Fire which is set in Paleolithic Europe. The movie is about the struggle for the control of fire by early humans. Burgess invented a prehistoric language called Ulam for the characters in the movie.

What about you? Do you have any favourite conlangs?

JANE: Not really.  Many of the recent ones have been developed for television shows, and when I watch a show in a foreign language, it tends to be Japanese…  I have the world’s weirdest Japanese vocabulary…

But, that’s off the point.  Before we wander even further off topic, there’s a created language that predates those we’ve been discussing.   Although it wasn’t written for SF/F, it became an element in many early SF stories.  Can you guess what that would be?

ALAN: Hmm… the only “real” conlang I can think of that has been used in SF stories is Esperanto.  Is that the one you mean?

JANE: You’ve got it.  Maybe we can talk about Esperanto, and the importance of conlangs to SF/F next time.

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6 Responses to “TT: There’s a Word For That”

  1. Paul Says:

    In much science fiction, it seems aliens in books are telepathic. In movies, they somehow speak English.

  2. JM Number 6 Says:

    Going to TV for a moment for a fun bit of an alien learning English and discovering Sesame Street, but NOT getting the humor. (starting at about 1:47)

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Language IS an artifact of culture!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Or is culture an artifact of language?

      ISTR that there was a controversy on the subject around the time Vance wrote The Languages of Pao – which is as much about language construction as constructed languages.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Very good thought. I haven’t read “The Languages of Pao” in a long time. Definitely time for a re-read.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        For me as well, actually. Hmmm… I wonder if I still have my copy…

        I will say that I never bought the premise: if language was that determinative, there wouldn’t be any neologisms, since no one would have the original thoughts that need to be expressed with them. But I’m quite sure it wasn’t anything Vance cooked up on his own – I’d run into it before reading the book. Still, to what extent language is cart and how much it’s horse – and what their relative positions are, anyway – is certainly a valid question. And like many good writers Vance did a fine job of exploring the, or rather an, extreme position.

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